Obama Wants Lame-Duck Congress To Pass START

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Republicans in Congress appear intent on blocking approval of the START treaty, the nuclear arms reduction agreement between the United States and Russia. The president gathered prominent Democrats and Republicans around him this week, and they called for the Senate to ratify the treaty that allows inspections of Russia's nuclear arsenal.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

You could say that President Obama is pulling out all the stops to win support for the START treaty. The president gathered prominent Democrats and Republicans around him this week. They called for the Senate to ratify the treaty that allows inspections of Russia's nuclear arsenal. The agreement is in trouble right now. A key senator, Republican John Kyl, has moved to block ratification - at least for now.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has more.

MARA LIASSON: At the White House yesterday, the president convened a bipartisan meeting of foreign policy heavyweights who support the START treaty. Along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, there were former secretaries of State Madeline Albright, Henry Kissinger and James Baker. Mr. Obama said the stakes for American security are clear and high.

President BARACK OBAMA: This is not a matter that can be delayed. Every month that goes by without a treaty means that we are not able to verify what's going on, on the ground in Russia. And if we delay indefinitely, American leadership on nonproliferation, and America's national security, will be weakened.

LIASSON: And it's not just nuclear weapons. The president called the treaty a cornerstone of the U.S. relationship with Russia, which has helped the U.S. prosecute the war in Afghanistan and pressure Iran to stop its weapons program.

President OBAMA: We cannot afford to gamble on our ability to verify Russia's strategic nuclear arms. And we can't jeopardize the progress that we've made in securing vulnerable nuclear materials, or in maintaining a strong sanctions regime against Iran.

LIASSON: Republican opposition to START is just the latest in a series of unexpected obstacles the president has faced since the Democrats lost the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. He failed to get a trade deal with South Korea on his recent trip to Asia. He was rebuffed by the Republican leadership after he invited them to a meeting at the White House this week. Failure to get the START treaty ratified could damage his credibility abroad, and some Democrats say that's exactly what's motivating Republicans. But Senator Kyl, who's blocking the treaty, denied that politics was behind his opposition.

SENATOR JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): This is a very complicated process. It cannot be done overnight. And I really do appreciate the sort of last-minute efforts of the administration to brief us on what their current thinking is.

LIASSON: Those last-minute efforts include a White House attempt to accommodate Kyl by adding $14 billion to the nuclear modernization budget. Despite Kyl's opposition, the president remains optimistic, saying he was confident the treaty should be able to get the votes it needs. He pointed out that every president since Ronald Reagan has been able to ratify an arms treaty with Russia, never with fewer than 86 votes. The White House is determined to push this treaty through in the lame-duck session, and it's getting some outside help.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4...

LIASSON: This is a television ad from a group called the American Values Network, airing in states represented by key Republican senators.

(Soundbite of ad)

(Soundbite of blast)

Unidentified Man #2: For 15 years, President Reagan's START treaty ensured U.S. inspectors monitored Russia's nuclear stockpile. But last year, our inspectors left Russia when START 1 expired and the Senate failed to ratify the new START treaty. Now, no one watches Russian's nuclear weapons. Tell your senator, we must ratify new START now.

LIASSON: Republican senator and treaty supporter Richard Lugar was at the White House yesterday. He explained, with some frustration, the reluctance of some of his colleagues to take up the treaty now, during the lame-duck session.

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): All things considered, people would prefer not to have to vote at this particular moment. Now, if you're a Republican, you anticipate that the lay of the land is going to be much more favorable in January and therefore, you would say, if you do not have to make tough choices now, why make tough choices?

LIASSON: In January, the math in the Senate will change. In the new Senate, there will be six fewer Democrats, and six more Republicans. That means in order to get the 67 votes needed for ratification, 14 Republicans will have to vote yes. And that's why treaty supporters are so eager to try to push it over the finish line now.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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